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Nashville Scene Womanly Virtues

In defense of Shania Twain

By Beverly Keel

DECEMBER 7, 1998:  As the denizens of Music Row take time to reflect on 1998 during this holiday season, one of the things they should be most thankful for is Shania Twain. But don't expect members of the industry to extend any seasonal generosity to the Canadian diva, who has become the Rodney Dangerfield of country music. Despite her mass appeal--which is luring new fans to country music at a time when country needs all the ears it can get--she gets no respect. Instead, she's been called the Farrah Fawcett of country music.

While the country music industry can't deny Twain's success--more than 15 million records sold, heavy video airplay on MTV and VH1, the cover of Rolling Stone--many resent the very factors that are central to her popularity a crossover sound, a focus on image, and a refusal to play the Music Row game. But aren't these the very traits needed to break Nashville out of its sound-alike, A&R-by- committee doldrums?

The rumors began rolling down Music Row as soon as her CDs started rolling off the shelves: She couldn't sing live; she was a recording-studio creation of husband/producer Robert "Mutt" Lange. It was easy for detractors to take their pot shots, since she chose not to tour in support of her second record, and few people heard her when she toured to promote her debut. All the rumors were laid to rest, however, during her 1998 tour, when she proved that she sounds just like she does on her recordings.

The most frequent criticisms have been about what Twain isn't: "She isn't country," one manager told me. "She's no Trisha Yearwood," one label president said, while a music journalist pointed out that she isn't Wynonna or Patty Loveless either. "It's a good thing Hank Williams Sr. is dead; this would kill him," wrote a critic for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, noting that Twain "looked more like an aerobics teacher than someone carrying on the legacy of Patsy Cline." But Twain never claimed to be carrying the country-music torch, and she has never pretended to be one of the genre's top vocalists. What rule says she has to be like Cline, or Yearwood, or Sara Evans?

For decades now, country music has been negotiating the difference between traditional and contemporary, and as we've learned, the music only has a future so long as it stays current. If pop fans are drawn to Twain, perhaps they'll investigate further and check out Reba or Vince Gill. Isn't this the very reason why Garth Brooks was heralded as the savior of Tune Town only a few years ago?

Twain is precisely what she has advertised herself to be: an entertaining singer/songwriter who makes the music she wants to make without compromising or kowtowing to the industry or to radio. And that's what Music Row can't stand: She's an outsider who has succeeded on her own terms. "I don't listen to the industry at all," she told The Hartford Courant. "I'm much more interested in what the fans think."

Bucking a long-standing country tradition, she didn't tour incessantly or rely on radio-safe songs. Instead she flaunted her looks in expensive videos and bypassed many of the gatekeepers of the Nashville star-making machine. But then, Twain has never really been a member of Nashville's country club, partly because she (gasp!) moved North before she broke through, and partly because of her personality.

Indeed, despite her sexy, bouncy videos, Twain isn't warm, bubbly, or eager to please. She's reserved and slow to let others in. On this basis, critics can certainly argue that she's manufactured, but in the end what does it matter? All music stars--country and pop--create personae. Isn't it more a question of the kind of posturing they resort to? In this regard, isn't Garth Brooks' "aw shucks" routine a lot more insidious than Twain's comely maiden?

Maybe one of the reasons Twain has received so much flak is because the gender-driven double standard is still thriving. She creates the image of being a sexy, voluptuous woman, yet she's driven, focused, and direct. As the cliché goes, such businesslike traits are considered assets in male singers, but in Twain, they're seen as liabilities. Nashville has seen its share of driven women--Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, and Pam Tillis--but the difference is that Twain doesn't temper her drive with humor, subtlety, or modesty.

Even more curious is the fact that Twain's supposedly sexy image really isn't all that overdone--or all that different from any other Nashville performer. Much ado has been made about her revealing clothing, but it's actually much less revealing than legend would have you believe. Except for the occasional CMA Awards gown, she rarely shows any cleavage, and she never shows her legs. She may look hot, but her moves are G-rated.

OK, so her pants are tight, but Brooks admits that he wears his onstage pants two sizes too small. And what about all the other male singers bulging out of their painted-on Wranglers? She's not the only one using sex to sell music--she's just the best at it.

It can be argued that Twain's success serves as a mirror through which we're forced to confront our own feelings about the marketing of female sexuality. Her image forces us to address stereotypes about women and beauty, women and success, women and artistry. While she certainly doesn't represent Everywoman--no one does--she does encapsulate many of the desires, quandaries, and contradictions of young independent women. She's the ultimate Cosmo girl, the purveyor of girl power in country. (And I'd like to think there's a little bit of a Spice Girl in all of us.)

While the media might herald other acts such as Garth Brooks and LeAnn Rimes, little noise has been made here about Twain's accomplishments, which continue to stack up--whether it's her inclusion in VH1's pop divas event, her bona fide pop hit with "You're Still the One," or landing the most nominations at the American Music Awards. The record execs, publicists, and managers who touted every Garth Brooks' move with a Chamber of Commerce-like enthusiasm ("Garth's success is country's success!") are now tight-lipped with their praise for Twain.

Twain has exceeded country music's parameters, yet she remains one of its finest ambassadors. She is helping Nashville overcome the much-detested hay-bale image the industry has been trying to shed for a decade. While Music Row is still bickering over whether or not she's country, the rest of America thinks she is, and they like what they see. As she continues to climb the career ladder, she may well be making room for more acts that don't fit neatly into the country industry's mold, while making pop fans more open to country music. When she succeeds, Nashville wins.

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